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Charles Blount on Rochester’s translation from Seneca
COMMENT AT ROCHESTER’S DEATH
Robert Parsons on Rochester
Extract from A Sermon preached at the Earl of Rochester’s Funeral (1680), pp. 7–9.
This famous sermon by Rochester’s family chaplain was the first of a long line of cautionary publications
in which Rochester features as the exemplary late penitent. First published in 1680, it had achieved its
fourteenth edition by around 1730 and went on being published throughout the eighteenth and into the
nineteenth century; the last edition (with Burnet’s Life) is dated 1820.
His Quality1 I shall take no notice of, there being so much of what was excellent and extraordinary in this great Person,
that I have no room for any thing that is common to him with others.
A Wit he had so rare and fruitful in its Invention, and withall so choice and delicate in its Judgment, that there is
nothing wanting in his Composures to give a full answer to that question, what and where Wit is? except the purity and
choice of subject. For had such excellent seeds but fallen upon good ground, and instead of pitching upon a Beast or a
Lust, been raised up on high, to celebrate the mysteries of the Divine Love, in Psalms, and Hymns, and Spiritual songs;
I perswade my self we might by this time have receiv’d from his Pen as excellent an Idea of Divine Poetry, under the
Gospel, useful to the teaching of Virtue, especially in this generation, as his profane Verses have been to destroy it. And
I am confident, had God spared him a longer life, this would have been the whole business of it, as I know it was the
vow and purpose of his Sickness.
i.e. social rank.
His natural talent was excellent, but he had hugely improved it by Learning and Industry, being throughly acquainted
with all Classick Authors, both Greek and Latin; a thing very rare, if not peculiar to him, amongst those of his quality.
Which yet he used not, as other Poets have done, to translate or steal from them, but rather to better, and improve
them by his own natural fancy. And whoever reads his Composures, will find all things in them so peculiarly Great,
New, and Excellent, that he will easily pronounce, That tho he has lent to many others, yet he has borrowed of none;
and that he has been as far from a sordid imitation of those before him, as he will be from being reach’d by those that
His other personal accomplishments in all the perfections of a Gentleman for the Court or the Country, whereof he
was known by all men to be a very great Master, is no part of my business to describe or understand: and whatever they
were in themselves, I am sure they were but miserable Comforters to him, since they only minister’d to his sins, and
made his example the more fatal and dangerous; for so we may own, (nay I am obliged by him not to hide, but to shew
the rocks, which others may avoid) that he was once one of the greatest of Sinners.
And truly none but one so great in parts could be so; as the chiefest of the Angels for knowledge and power became
most dangerous. His Sins were like his Parts, (for from them corrupted they sprang), all of them high and
extraordinary. He seem’d to affect something singular and paradoxical in his Impieties, as well as in his Writings, above
the reach and thought of other men; taking as much pains to draw others in, and to pervert the right ways of virtue, as
the Apostles and Primitive Saints, to save their own souls, and them that heard them. For this was the heightning and amazing
circumstance of his sins, that he was so diligent and industrious to recommend and propagate them; not like those of old
that hated the light, but those the Prophet mentions, Isiah 3.9. who declare their sin as Sodom, and hide it not, that take it upon
their shoulders, and bind it to them as a Crown; framing Arguments for Sin, making Proselytes to it, and writing Panegyricks
upon Vice; singing Praises to the great enemy of God, and casting down Coronets and Crowns before his Throne.
Nay so confirm’d was he in Sin, that he lived, and oftentimes almost died, a Martyr for it.
Gilbert Burnet, Some Passages of the Life and Death of Rochester
Gilbert Burnet was born in Edinburgh in 1643. After a distinguished ecclesiastical career in Scotland he
became chaplain to Charles II and, soon after William III’s accession to the throne in 1688, which he had
furthered, was made Bishop of Salisbury. He died in 1715. The Life of Rochester, here printed in full, had a
phenomenal success, published first in 1680 and thereafter in repeated editions and reprints (including
translation into French, Dutch and German) until as late as 1876. It is discussed in the Introduction pp. 9–
10. The text reproduced is that of the first edition. For a list of editions, though incomplete, see Clarke
and Foxcroft’s Life of Gilbert Burnet (Cambridge, 1907), pp. 526–7 and Prinz, op. cit., pp. 414–18.
From the Preface:
I have endeavoured to give his character as fully as I could take it: for, I who saw him only in one light, in a sedate and
quiet temper, when he was under a great decay of strength and loss of spirits, cannot give his picture with that life and
advantage that others may who knew him when his parts were more bright and lively; yet the composure he was then in
may perhaps be supposed to balance any abatement of his usual vigour, which the declination of his health brought him
under. I have written this discourse with as much care, and have considered it as narrowly, as I could. I am sure I have
said nothing but truth: I have done it slowly, and often used my second thoughts in it, not being so much concerned in
the censures which might fall on myself, as cautious that nothing should pass that might obstruct my only design of
writing, which is the doing what I can towards the reforming a loose and lewd age. And if such a signal instance,
concurring with all the evidence that we have for our most holy faith, has no effect on those who are running the same
course, it is much to be feared they are given up to a reprobate sense.
THE LIFE AND DEATH
JOHN EARL OF ROCHESTER
JOHN WILMOT, Earl of Rochester, was born in April, Anno Dom. 1648. His father was Henry Earl of Rochester, but
best known by the title of the Lord Wilmot, who bore so great a part in all the late wars, that mention is often made of
him in the History: And had the chief share in the Honour of the preservation of his Majesty that now Reigns, after
Worcester fight, and the conveying him from Place to Place, till he happily escaped into France: But dying before the
King’s Return, he left his Son little other Inheritance, but the Honour and Title derived to him, with the pretensions
such eminent services gave him to the King’s favour: these were carefully managed by the great prudence and discretion
of his Mother, a Daughter of that Noble and ancient family of the St. Johns of Wiltshire, so that his education was carried
on in all things suitably to his Quality.
When he was at School he was an extraordinary Proficient at his book: and those shining parts, which since have
appeared with so much lustre; began then to shew themselves: He acquired the Latin to such perfection, that to his
dying-day he retained a great relish of the fineness and Beauty of that Tongue: and was exactly versed in the
incomparable Authors that writ about Augustus’s time, whom he read often with that peculiar delight which the greatest
Wits have ever found in those Studies.1
When he went to the University the general joy which over-ran the whole Nation upon his Majesty’s Restauration, but
was not regulated with that Sobriety and Temperance, that became a serious gratitude to God for so great a blessing,
produced some of its ill effects on him: He began to love these disorders too much; His Tutor was that Eminent and
Pious Divine Dr. Blandford, afterwards promoted to the Sees of Oxford and Worcester: And under his Inspection, he was
committed to the more immediate care of Mr. Phineas Berry, a Fellow of Wadham College, a very learned and goodnatured man; whom he afterwards ever used with much respect, and rewarded him as became a great man. But the
humour of that time wrought so much on him, that he broke off the Course of his Studies; to which no means could
ever effectually recall him; till when he was in Italy his Governor, Dr. Balfour, a learned and worthy man, now a
Celebrated Physician in Scotland, his Native Country; drew him to read such Books, as were most likely to bring him
back to love Learning and Study: and he often acknowledged to me, in particular three days before his Death, how
much he was obliged to Love and Honour this his Governor, to whom he thought he owed more than to all the World,
next after his Parents, for his Fidelity and Care of him, while he was under his trust. But no part of it affected him more
sensibly, than that he engaged him by many tricks (so he expressed it) to delight in Books and reading; So that ever after
he took occasion, in the Intervals of those woful Extravagancies that consumed most of his time to read much: and
though the time was generally but indifferently employed, for the choice of the Subjects of his Studies was not always
good, yet the habitual Love of Knowledge together with these fits of Study, had much awakened his Understanding, and
prepared him for better things, when his mind should be so far changed as to relish them.
He came from his Travels in the 18th Year of his Age, and appeared at Court with as great Advantages as most ever
had. He was a Graceful and well-shaped Person, tall, and well made, if not a little too slender: He was exactly well
bred, and what by a modest behaviour natural to him, what by a Civility become almost as natural, his Conversation
was easie and obliging. He had a strange Vivacity of thought, and vigour of expression: his Wit had a subtility and sublimity
both, that were scarce imitable. His Style was clear and strong: When he used Figures they were very lively, and yet far
enough out of the Common Road: he had made himself Master of Ancient and Modern Wit, and of the Modern French
and Italian as well as the English. He loved to talk and write of Speculative Matters, and did it with so fine a thread, that
even those who hated the Subjects that his Fancy ran upon, yet could not but be charmed with his way of treating them.
Boileau among the French, and Cowley among the English Wits, were those he admired most. Sometimes other men’s
thoughts mixed with his Composures, but that flowed rather from the Impressions they made on him when he read
them, by which they came to return upon him as his own thoughts; than that he servilely copied from any. Few men
ever had a bolder flight of fancy, more steadily governed by Judgment than he had. No wonder a young man so made,
and so improved was very acceptable in a Court.
Soon after his coming thither he laid hold on the first Occasion that offered to shew his readiness to hazard his life in
the Defence and Service of his Country. In winter 1665 he went with the Earl of Sandwich to Sea, when he was sent to lie
for the Dutch East-India Fleet; and was in the Revenge, Commanded by Sir Thomas Tiddiman, when the Attack was made
on the Port of Bergen in Norway, the Dutch ships having got into that Port. It was as desperate an Attempt as ever was made:
during the whole Action, the Earl of Rochester shewed as brave and as resolute a Courage as was possible: A Person of
See however my note to No. 27 for a different opinion.